Eric Dupond-Moretti, the most famous lawyer in France and since Monday the Minister of Justice of President Emmanuel Macron, has received several nicknames throughout his career. One is The Ogre of the North and refers to his physical appearance, his abrupt ways and his origin in the industrial region bordering Belgium. The other is Acquittator, a pun on the Terminator movie and the word acquittal ( acquitted t) in French, as Dupont-Moretti has obtained 145 acquittals in a 36-year career, a record.
Nicknames sum up the character: a rogue style that has created him countless enemies but also made him a popular man, and a talent in court that has made him a living legend of criminal law. His appointment is the biggest surprise to the government of the new Prime Minister, Jean Castex. The unknown is whether someone who has been his boss for decades and only responds to his clients, a media polemicist who rejoices in the provocation, the #meToo critic who claims the right, will be able to maintain government discipline. To whistle women on the street, the commentator who has come to defend the banning of the extreme right-wing National Front party, the lawyer who has accused the judges of constituting a “caste” and has demanded the closure of the National School of Magistracy.
“When you are a free criminal lawyer, your words are not the same as when you represent the State,” this was justified on Wednesday in his debut before the National Assembly, amid booing from the opposition and applause from the majority. “They will judge me on what I have done when I have done it,” he added.
Justice was always somewhat visceral for this 59-year-old proletarian from the north, who in the first years of his career kicked the whole of France from court to court, assuming lost cases, and thus made a name for himself. Years later, he would recreate in his books or his play this mythology of the defender of the losers. This explosive speaker electrified the public and persuaded the juries before setting out on other cases in other provincial cities.
Dupont-Moretti’s father died of cancer when he was 4 years old; her mother, an Italian immigrant, worked as a cleaner. He studied law inspired by the never-investigated death of his grandfather by the railroad track.
France is a country of star lawyer, from Jacques Vergès, a defender among others of the Nazi Klaus Barbie, to Robert Badinter. He was also Minister of Justice and abolished the death penalty. “In France, there is a lot of interest in judicial oratory art, a sensitivity towards this eloquence. And criminal lawyers have always enjoyed certain notoriety. But Dupond-Moretti is the first to enjoy such notoriety: he is known in every home,” explains Christian Saint-Palais, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers. “He is a boy of popular social origin, very intelligent, cultivated: he knows how to speak to all layers of society, and this is his strength in court,” he adds.
Dupond-Moretti rose to national fame with the so-called Outreau case, at the beginning of the first decade of the century, a judicial scandal in which 13 accused of participating in a paedophile ring were acquitted. In recent years he has dedicated himself to media cases and powerful clients, such as Mohamed VI of Morocco, Real Madrid footballer Karim Benzema or the brother of jihadist Mohammed Merah.
The risk of the appointment is that Dupond-Moretti is a source of trouble for a president accustomed to ministers not straying an inch from the official line. But it can also be an advantage: a different personality that breaks the uniformity of power, a popular figure, even a populist one, in the world of technocrats. He, the provincial boy who has conquered Paris, the proletarian who, in his own words, has become gentrified, seems not quite to believe it. “For me,” he acknowledged this week, “this is a dizzying moment.”